Vladimir Putin, seen through a viewfinder, at his annual press conference in Moscow in December 18, 2014. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin, seen through a viewfinder, at his annual press conference in Moscow in December 18, 2014. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

The recent failure of opinion polls ahead of the British elections has sparked much soul-searching in Westminster circles. Pollsters, we are told, have eroded the public’s faith in politics and should consider resigning en masse.

I sometimes wonder what those same commentators would make of opinion polls carried out in an authoritarian system like today’s Russia. After last year’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings sky-rocketed to 85% and have more or less stayed there since. As a result, many have come to see Russian society as a monolithic entity, rallied around a kind of 21st century tsar. There has been a tendency to portray Russians as aggressively imperialistic at heart, a homogeneous bloc thirsty for military adventures. But is it really that simple?

Last month I attended a conference in Tallinn, Estonia, where Russian opposition figures, writers, sociologists and politicians, pondered over the question of “what Russians really think”. Some argued that polls shouldn’t be taken at face value in Russia because it is a country where basic freedoms are far from guaranteed, and where the state apparatus exerts strong pressure over its citizens.

This is a legitimate point: if a Russian citizen is called up or visited by a pollster, wouldn’t he be likely to play it safe and declare he heartily approves of everything the Kremlin is doing? After all, Russia is a place where dissident voices can easily be exposed to the wrath of repressive legislation, pushed towards exile or – in dramatic cases – exposed to the fire of contract killers. One could easily be forgiven for toeing the official line.

However, none of the participants denied that Putin is a highly popular figure. He is. Nor does anyone question the professionnalism of Russia’s main polling firm, the Levada Center. It was founded by Yuri Levada, a prominent and respected figure in Russia’s liberal-minded elite, who died in 2006. Levada once told me how puzzling it was for someone of his generation, who had witnessed the democratic transformations of the Gorbachev era, to see how quickly a Soviet-type mindset was re-emerging under Putin. Those who have followed in Levada’s tracks at the Center certainly cannot be accused of a pro-regime slant, nor of tampering with statistics.

So the main question revolves around what exactly hides behind that 85% figure. According to the Levada Center’s Alexei Levinson, something fascinating is happening in Russia: “Our public opinion”, he says, “now follows the language of our state diplomacy. People say things they don’t expect anyone to believe!” An example: although Russian propaganda says there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, Russians are well aware that on the contrary, there are. “But as it is in Russia’s interests to say that these forces aren’t present in Ukraine, people are OK to deny it”, he explained.

This is not by any means about shyness – it is a new form of double-speak and double-think. Levinson sees signs of a different kind of totalitarianism – not one based on fear, as in the Stalinist times, but on a Russian desire to be acknowledged as a great power. Whether the facts hold up has become unimportant.

Anti-Americanism has reached record levels and Russians have been convinced that their country is facing the equivalent of the second world war. But the crucial point, says Levinson, is that “for Russian people, none of this is really serious; it is a play in the mind, an urge for symbols”. Russians are not ready to fight in Ukraine, there is no rush to volunteer.

The same applies to Putin’s ratings: “There is no genuine personality cult. People are in fact quite critical of the economic situation and domestic developments”. Levinson has come to the conclusion that with all the social difficulties that now abound in Russia, to keep on lying soothes the soul. Despite all the TV propaganda, the truth is widely known. “Criticism of the corruption of authorities is boundless,” he stresses. This somehow goes hand in hand with taking pride in Russia as a great power.

It is true that much of what goes on in Russia does now depends on one man, Vladimir Putin, who opted for war in Ukraine to regain political ground after the 2011-2012 popular protests that had threatened him. Galvanising patriotism is an old recipe. But it would be an error to assume that one man’s words and actions speak for a whole country. Russians are not as brainwashed as many make them out to be, nor should they be caricatured.

So where does that leave Western policy-makers ? First, they shouldn’t underestimate the risk of this toxic mix of patriotic rhetoric and political inertia escalating further and resulting in an accidental armed confrontation with Nato. Second, they should pay attention to what one of Russia’s most brillant and passionate democratic activists, the ex-Soviet dissident Andrey Mironov (who was killed while reporting out of Ukraine last year), has always pointed to: building up the layers of a genuine civil society is a long and arduous struggle. Levinson takes the same view. He has the polling figures, he analyses what they really mean, and he says he’s optimistic. This should be Europe’s starting point.

This article was amended on 22 May 2015 to correct the towing/toeing homophone.

By , The Guardian